TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Mitt Romney is fighting for votes in economically struggling Michigan by pointing to his job-creation record in Massachusetts for proof he can jump-start bad economies — but the drop in unemployment during his time as governor may be a result more of willing workers fleeing the state than from his own ability to spawn jobs.
In fact, Massachusetts had the weakest employment growth of any state from 2002 to 2006 except for Mississippi and Louisiana, which suffered the brunt of Hurricane Katrina, and Michigan itself, which was buffeted by the auto industry’s woes.
“The fact the unemployment rate went down had nothing to do with the policies of his administration,” said professor Andrew M. Sum, director of the center for labor market studies at Northeastern University in Boston. “We had one of the three worst job-creation rates in the country under his administration. The unemployment rate largely went down for one reason, because people withdrew from the labor force and left the state.”
Michigan Republicans go to the polls Tuesday along with voters in Arizona, and the economy remains at the top of the list of issues for Republican voters nationwide.
Mr. Romney in particular is basing his campaign appeal on his message of economic competence, highlighting his time at the helm of Bain Capital and the one term he served as governor as critical experience that will translate over to the White House.
“When I came in as governor, we were in a real free fall,” Mr. Romney said in a December debate. “We were losing jobs every month. We had a budget that was way out of balance. So I came into office, we went to work as a team, and we were able to turn around the job losses. And at the end of four years, we had our unemployment rate down to 4.7 percent.”
But Mr. Sum said Massachusetts’ unemployment rate fell mostly because people looking for work moved out of the state, and thus were no longer counted on the Massachusetts rolls.
In all, he said 222,000 more residents left Massachusetts than moved there during Mr. Romney’s time in office, making the state “a national leader in exporting our population.”
The Romney campaign disputed the employment numbers, saying that when measured on a month-to-month basis from December 2002 to December 2006, both the labor force and the number of employed actually grew.
Indeed, the labor force — measured by those with jobs or those who were actively seeking employment — grew 0.5 percent. But that was still the third-worst rate in the country, behind Louisiana and Mississippi, both of which shed workers after Hurricane Katrina.
And Massachusetts’ employment rate — the percentage of the population actually in jobs — did grow 1.5 percent, but that was fourth-worst in the country, behind the two Hurricane Katrina states and Michigan.
The Republican has said that he would have been able to do more, but his hands were tied by the Democrat-controlled legislature, which had no appetite for his conservative-fueled policies.
Mr. Romney renewed his economic pitch to Michigan voters Friday, laying out a plan to cut taxes and slowly increase the eligibility age for entitlements, which he said would balance the budget and boost jobs nationally.
Polls show the ex-governor sitting atop a solid lead in Arizona and running neck-and-neck here in Michigan with former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.